Monthly Archives: July 2010

Illegality of Iraq war

One small news item that got lost in the crush of other recent stories deserved more play than it got. It made it more clear than ever that there are serious doubts in Britain about the legality of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of Britain, caused a stir in Parliament last week when he said, referring to Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s Labor Government: “Maybe he one day – perhaps we will have to wait for his memoirs – could account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq.”

Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, the junior coalition partner of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, which supported Britain’s role in the invasion. After Clegg’s remarks some Conservative leaders including the current foreign secretary distanced themselves from Clegg, but there was no clear statement by the British government as to what its current position is. A spokesperson for the prime minister said the government would not state its position on the legality of the war until after an official investigation known as the Chilcot Inquiry is completed.

The Chilcot Inquiry is the latest in a series of postmortems about the war, this one focusing on the background and aftermath of Britain’s participation in the war. Among witnesses who have testified recently is Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, Britain’s internal security services. She said the Iraq war was a major mistake and one that had helped make Britain less secure against home-grown terrorism: “Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people  –  not a whole generation, a few among a generation  –  who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack on Islam.”

The Chilcot panel also released a previously classified document Lady Manningham-Buller had written a year before the invasion in which she said Saddam was not likely to use chemical or biological weapons unless “he felt the survival of his regime was in doubt.” She added: “We assess that Iraqi capability to mount attacks in the UK is currently limited.”

Lady Manningham-Buller testified to the Chilcot panel that there had been only a low risk of a direct threat to Britain by Iraq and no credible evidence of an Iraqi link to al-Qaida, and she revealed that she had refused a request by Blair’s office to contribute low-grade intelligence to the dossier his office put together to justify the war. She said she didn’t think the intelligence was reliable.

Why aren’t U.S. news media focusing more attention on this?  At the time of the war, the Bush administration repeatedly cited British support to justify the invasion, and now it’s increasingly clear that senior British officials had major doubts as to its legality at the time.

(Photo: guardian.co.uk)

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Daniel Schorr, a real journalist

Reading obits of Daniel Schorr, the independent-minded journalist who had the courage to defy the powerful (he was on the Nixon enemies list), I remember how Schorr stood up to Ted Turner in the early days of CNN.

When I joined CNN in April of 1981 I was worried that Turner, loud-mouthed and erratic, would do something so embarrassing that it would ruin the credibility of the fledgling all-news experiment. Soon after I joined, Turner almost succeeded in doing that. He did an on-air editorial in which he said that the producers of the movie “Taxi Driver” should be put on trial for John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. Turner’s logic was a bit skewed. He said the producers were at fault because their movie had inspired Hinckley: “The people responsible for this movie should be just as much on trial as John Hinckley himself … Write your Congressman and your Senator right away, and tell him that you want something done.”

Just when I thought CNN’s reputation would be destroyed by this nutty comment by its owner, to its credit CNN ran an on-air reply by CNN commentator Schorr contradicting Turner. Schorr said having Congress take action against film producers could violate First Amendment protections against government censorship.

Schorr had a checkered career, and not everything he did was above criticism, but standing up to his boss at CNN was an example of Schorr at his best. He spoke truth to power, and in that he was a real journalist.

(Photo: NY1)

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What can we learn from the Shirley Sherrod affair?

My blogger friends aren’t going to like this post. I’m going to be accused of being a media dinosaur. But I can’t help feeling that the Shirley Sherrod affair demonstrates the need for all of us to go back to some of the old values of traditional mainstream media.

When I say traditional values I’m talking about values that go back to before the Internet and before cable. I’m talking about doing things more slowly and carefully. I’m talking about being skeptical whenever someone tells you that something happened. I’m talking about wanting to see the original document or the original tape yourself before writing about something that allegedly comes from it, something that could cost a woman her job and unfairly raise charges of racism in a country where race is still such an explosive issue.

In other words, old-style, traditional, skeptical and independent journalism, journalism that is concerned about being fact-based, complete, contextual, in-depth and fair.

This old journalism is sharply different from the rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip style popular in cyberspace where many items are written hastily and with a partisan or ideological bias, items that replace careful, independent scrutiny of facts with clever commentary designed to skewer an opponent and reinforce the prejudices of one’s own side.

In this case it was Fox, the Obama administration and the NAACP that embarrassed themselves by jumping to conclusions that later proved to be wrong, but the same thing could happen to other media, government and political organizations of all stripes. It could happen to you.

What we had in the Sherrod affair was a conservative organization, Fox “News,” jumping unthinkingly on a story based on a bit of tape provided, out of context and with great distortion, by a conservative agitator, Andrew Breitbart, who was trying to discredit the NAACP for seeing racism in the tea party, and then we had Fox playing up the story and commenting on it without checking into it more carefully. Then we had a liberal administration firing Sherrod because of all the hysteria whipped up by Fox, and we had a liberal organization, the NAACP, approving her firing, and now we have Fox finally doing more careful reporting and finding white farmers who say she helped them and is no racist, and now the NAACP is saying it was snookered, and the Obama administration is backtracking.

What a mess.

And so unnecessary.

It all could have been avoided if all of us, liberal or conservative or of whatever ideological stripe, had just calmed down and taken it more slowly and carefully instead of jumping to conclusions and seeing things through a distorted partisan lens.

Go ahead. Attack me. I know I’m a dinosaur (34 years at the Wall St. Journal, AP, Newsweek and CNN). But I think it’s time for anyone who is writing in cyberspace or appearing on cable channels to slow down, be more careful, stop and think and learn a lesson or two from the best of the old media.

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WaPost series: security threat or Pulitzer material?

The Washington Post‘s  three-part series on the enormous scope of the top-secret network of the government and its contractors has worried some spooks as revealing too many secrets and helping potential terrorists know where to attack. But for me, as a former CNN Washington correspondent, the series looks like a candidate for a Pulitzer Prize.

While some rightwingers say the Post is blatantly trying to destroy national security, the series was carefully researched (nearly two years in the making) and every possible attempt was made to address any security concerns. Reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin went over every detail to achieve a good balance between letting the public know in general where the government agencies and contractors are located and what they are doing, on the one hand, and on the other hand avoiding the kind of detail that might not already be available to potential adversaries such as al-Qaida who are looking for targets to attack.

In recent interviews about the series, Priest and Arkin have made it clear that they bent over backwards to make sure they are not endangering national security, while at the same time breaking valuable new ground in telling us about the astonishing size and unwieldiness of the intelligence octopus. It is truly frightening to think how powerful and unaccountable this apparatus is, and how easily the gathering of secret information could be abused. Before policy makers can even begin to think in terms of sensible reforms to try to rein it in, we first need to know the facts, and this great investigative series is an important first step.

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Afghan war: the cost of not knowing

First Michael Steele raised doubts whether the Afghan war is winnable. Now Senators Kerry and Lugar are expressing their own doubts. But still our news media are not providing enough in-depth coverage to foster an informed debate about war policy.

in Vietnam, American news media were slow to report on atrocities until the My Lai massacre. They were slow to report on the true strength of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies until the Tet offensive.  Even then news media didn’t focus deeply enough on the possibility that our leaders had lied and our policy might fail until Walter Cronkite said so on CBS. Then the coverage became more realistic, it became clear to more of the American public that we weren’t winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilians, that “Vietnamization” wasn’t working, and the ground war began to end. (Nixon escalated the bombing but eventually that, too, failed).

The current war in Afghanistan, with its Vietnam-type focus on winning “hearts and minds,” has gone on longer than any other American war, and still the news media are providing little more than superficial coverage — some bang-bang here, a few interviews there, a map or two, a graphic showing the latest death tolls. That’s about it. They need to do much more to tell us in-depth and with historical context what is really happening, whether there’s any realistic chance of separating the Taliban fighters from the civilians, and whether even an American “victory” in Afghanistan would actually prevent future al-Qaida attacks on Americans.

As President Obama said in his commencement address in May here at the University of Michigan, before we can have a debate on any policy we need a reliable account of the facts, and that is the job of news media. His words are especially true in the case of war policy, because, as Senator Hiram Johnson is credited with saying in 1917, truth is the first casualty in wartime. Governments mislead the public. Journalists fear that being negative will make them look unpatriotic. But it’s in wartime that we need the truth the most. And in the case of Afghanistan, without the public having an understanding of the truth, this war and its terrible cost in lives could go on for a long time to come.

(Photo: WN Network)

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No time for hawks

It’s becoming fashionable for some politicians to portray themselves as “deficit hawks.” This sounds nice: getting tough on excessive indebtedness, like getting tough on crime. And as we get closer to the midterm elections, more and more candidates may try to wrap themselves in the attractive packaging of hawkishness. That’s where good journalists need to step in.

As Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania pointed out on the PBS NewsHour, if the public is properly informed it will see how wrong this is. Cutting government spending during a recession is no way to create or save the jobs needed to pull us out of that recession. For example, unemployment insurance payments immediately stimulate the economy because they are spent quickly, and that helps create or save jobs. And Rendell feels it is possible to do two things at the same time: spend more to create jobs and also work on a long-term plan for deficit reduction. PBS did the right thing by interviewing Rendell and giving him the opportunity to present sensible ideas.

Columnists such as Paul Krugman do a good job of explaining how it would be madness to cut off unemployment benefits and other government spending during a recession that is far from over. But columnists are not enough. We need news media to do more, especially mass media such as television news. They need to explain to the public how economies really work, and what the real consequences would be of abandoning job creation at this crucial moment. News organizations need to interview reputable, nonpolitical experts and create a forum for a thoughtful, politics-free debate on what really happens when we continue or abandon economic stimulation. Only then can voters make informed choices and avoid being conned by the hawks.

(Photo: City of Orange Beach)

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Mideast: no peace, no process

I was going through some very old CNN tapes yesterday and came across a quote from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 1987 during a visit to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In a speech that I covered, Shultz encouraged the Israelis to take a risk for peace. What struck me about that quote is that it was almost exactly what President Obama said this week about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“I think he’s willing to take risks for peace….”). Twenty-three years later and the U.S. is still saying the same thing to Israel.

Headlines from twenty-three years ago spoke of “Hope for Peace Talks” but it’s now clear that there never was any hope by anyone informed of the true situation. And can journalists really use the term “peace process” to describe the fruitless attempts at meaningful talks that have taken place decade after decade in the Middle East? There ought to be a more realistic, truthful term to describe the situation. “Peace process” has a nice sound to it, and serves as a reminder what the desired goal ought to be, but there’s no peace and no process, just a seemingly endless series of fits and starts.

A cynic might wonder whether U.S. politicians ever really cared about peace in the Middle East. One problem is that even if American officials wanted to do something meaningful, they can never get very far without running up against political reality. A first-term president is thinking about re-election and usually the main issue is the economy, not the Middle East. A second-term president is often a lame duck, and the politicians who are candidates to replace him do not place the Middle East at the top of their agenda because that’s not what wins them the votes they need. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian situation is on the front burner, it won’t receive much American attention.

Which brings us to the news media. Since politicians won’t focus enough on the Middle East to make a difference, journalists need to. Journalists need to keep focusing public attention on the human suffering in that part of the world, and on the cynical exploitation of it by local politicians. European news media do a much better job of this than American news media. American journalists oversimplify complex developments, often playing up the viewpoint of Israel, America’s ally, or getting sidetracked by trivial issues. Journalists need to report more seriously and more in-depth on the historical context for each news development. You can’t understand the Middle East without understanding history, and since our schools don’t teach enough history, the American public often learns about the world and its past largely through the news media — which is a sad commentary and one that doesn’t offer much hope for the future.

(Knesset, White House photos)

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